Smoke and Elephant
Coketown is always covered by clouds of smoke, an image that conveys the murky, polluted nature of this industrialized town. The phrase Dickens uses is “serpents of smoke,” a sinister image that conveys the idea that something evil hovers over Coketown. Dickens uses another sinister image to describe the pistons of the steam engines; they constantly go up and down “like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness” (Book 1, chapter 5). This unusual image suggests awesome amounts of energy and strength trapped in meaningless repetitive activity-which rather sums up the life of the factory.
The smoke that suffocates Coketown is contrasted with the image of fire. Fire represents the creative imagination, or “fancy,” and it is used in the novel only in association with Louisa. Louisa often sits in the corner of the living room gazing into the fire, because it stimulates her thoughts and her imagination. But in the environment she finds herself in, that fire cannot flourish. A telling image comes in the scene in which Gradgrind informs Louisa of Bounderbys marriage proposal. In speaking to her father of how she is not, given the kind of education she has received, in a position to know much about matters of the heart, Louisa makes an unconscious gesture. She closes her hand, “as if upon a solid object, and slowly opened it as though she were releasing dust or ash.” The fire of life cannot burn brightly in this environment; it turns to nothing.
In a world of hard facts and figures, Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek mythology, is a symbol of fancy and wonder. In Hard Times, Pegasus is associated with the circus people, who embody values that are quite different from those of Gradgrind and Bounderby. Slearys circus people live at an inn called the Pegasuss Arms. The inn has a picture of Pegasus on its sign-board, and inside there is a portrait of one of the circus horses, which is described as “another Pegasus.” This Pegasus has “real gauze let in for his wings, golden stars stuck on all over him, and his ethereal harness made of red silk.” The circus horses, in conjunction with the skill and daring of their riders, create a sense of wonder in the audience, allowing them to escape the drudgery of the “hard facts” world served up to them by people like Gradgrind and Bounderby. Seen in this light, the existence of the circus horses is a direct reproach to Gradgrind, who in Book I, chapter 2 asks the children in class to define a horse. Bitzer gives a factual definition: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four-eye teeth, and twelve incisive.” This pleases Gradgrind, but it comes nowhere near to suggesting the capacities of the horse as symbolized by Pegasus.